“What is the problem if you have nothing to hide?” is just one of a number of permutations of a phrase which conveys the notion that privacy is something that is desired by the less trustworthy, unethical and even possibly criminal among us. Yet psychologically, the human desire for privacy is inherent in everybody, innocent and all; we shudder at the idea of its removal. Privacy is emotionally linked to our notion of personal freedom, so much so that there is nothing of equal value upon which it can be traded.
“They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety” – Benjamin Franklin.
Since the days or Benjamin Franklin, the fight for privacy has found itself a more contemporary battleground in cyberspace and technology; and using different weapons in the form of anonymity and encryption. Who can forget the infamous duel between the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) and Apple in the case of the 2015 San Bernardino attack, whereby Apple would not assist in producing a requested crack-able version of their operating system to permit law enforcement accessing their phones. Apple stated this due to its policy which required it to never undermine the security features of its products. Ultimately, this led to FBI forensic expert Stephen Flatley labelling Apple as “evil geniuses.”
In the UK, it has become less of a fight and more of a demand after Parliament approved new legislation described as the most extreme surveillance in the history of western democracy, more formally known as the Investigatory Powers Act. Using the justification of trading privacy for safety, the UK government can now force communications companies who utilize encryption to decrypt or create backdoors in their offering for surveillance purposes. In particular, popular messaging app WhatsApp has been the focus of many a public speech on the topic.
Consequentially, this debate raises the question of who, if either, has the interest of the individual at heart. Governments would argue that the sacrifice of privacy is the price to pay for increased security, after all criminal and terrorist organizations make use of such technology to hide their activities too. While this may be the case sometimes, historically humans find it hard to contain excessive powers they possess, as we learned from Edward Snowdon in 2013.
On the face of it, Apple and other “rebellious” technology companies seem to be our knights in shining armour, defending our digital privacy. Or are they?
In the age of big data, the world’s most valuable resource is now thought to be, or soon to be, the information collected about our habits, likes and dislikes. Large technology companies are vying for consumers to use their services and products so that they can profile them for the purpose of further advertising. With Google and Blackberry already revealed to have been used for surveillance by Edward Snowdon in 2013, Apple may wish to remain untainted as the world’s most private smartphone producer.
This then begs the question as to whether or not we are fighting to defend privacy, or merely to control an idea of privacy which has already been lost?
Of course, there are choices as individuals that we all make. For example, the use of a smartphone surrenders some privacy to the smartphone manufacturer in exchange for the use of the device. It is also likely that an online email provider who provides services at no cost will be reading your emails to understand which products and services would be best advertised to you whilst you receive emails from friends, family and business associates.
We would be gullible to believe that we are the only winners in such situations. So maybe Benjamin Franklin was right, maybe we can’t have our smartphones, electronic communication and our privacy all at the same time. Maybe we didn’t lose privacy, we just traded it away.
About our guest blogger:
Chris Payne started his career working in telecoms and network infrastructure, moving into the security industry out of an interest in the topic. Working in the IT security channel market as a technical consultant for many years, Chris has worked with some of the largest security vendors, distributors, resellers and customers. He has written and contributed to numerous whitepapers, blogs and publications; hosted and presented at events in both the UK, Denmark and Norway and been filmed for the Business Reporters online edition. In recent years, Chris has specialised in information security becoming certified as a GDPR practitioner under the IT Governance IBITGQ programme and founding IT security solutions and consultancy provider Advanced Cyber Solutions Ltd.